Cannot compute!: Is travelling with technology a good or a bad thing?

When we decided to go travelling, over a year ago, I pictured us exploring the world, and documenting it as we went. I knew I didn’t want to be a ‘travel wanker’ on Facebook, constantly updating every other day with pictures and statuses, transparently trying to prove the worth of my travels, or at least, trying to make friends at home jealous. 

But I knew I wanted to write, take photos, take videos, and diarise what we were doing, learning and feeling about travelling, as we went. So, I did what any wannabe blogger would do, and rushed out to buy a netbook. A slimline white Samsung netbook – light enough to carry, and good enough to watch some TV on, during low moments.

However, when we were about to leave England early January this year, I suddenly got cold feet. Not about travelling, but about whether I wanted to be anchored and wedded to my laptop for our 18 months away. I kind of like the liberation of being sans technology, and when me and Sam went to Costa Rica for 3 weeks last spring, I didn’t check my phone once (despite good wi-fi everywhere) and I really loved it. So we decided on a halfway house, of bringing smartphones with WordPress installed, and a bluetooth keyboard, for blogging. And I have to say, I don’t regret my decision at all! 

We have episodes of our fave shows like Community, New Girl and Family Guy, and some films, saved on SD cards to watch on our phones if we want. And if we feel the need, we can Whatsapp, Skype or Facebook message friends from home and new friends from travel. And of course, our Smartphones have become SO MUCH more important, in terms of emailing hostels, looking up bus times, checking Trip Advisor for good restaurants and activities in upcoming cities…

But crucially, there’s nothing I can’t do on my phone, that would merit my laptop. It seems on the surface like a subtle distinction, but I can honestly say I feel freer without my PC. Not only do I not have to worry about it breaking as my bags get chucked around hostels, buses and boats, or stolen on a night bus, but it also means there’s less for me to hide behind.

It’s definitely true that modern travelling has become less social. You go into a hostel now and often people are heads-down on phones, laptops and tablets, not talking. What would once be a topic of conversation is now a question for Google, and what would once be a spare evening to socialise is now an evening to stay in, have a ‘quiet one’ and watch something. I’ve met people who are openly anti-technology, or anti-Facebook / Skype when travelling, as they think it’s sucking up time that could be better used elsewhere exploring things.

I have some sympathy with this view, as I do think it’s tragic that we don’t communicate as much, especially when sharing something as great as traveling. And some of the best impromptu conversations I’ve had, have resulted in shared tips for cities and countries, travel plans borne, and friendships cemented. But that’s not to say there isn’t a time and a place for technology.

Sometimes you need the comfort blanket. The night in watching Forrest Gump under the duvet. The group Whatsapp with your work mates that makes the distance across the globe feel smaller. The voyeuristic status update-checking to make sure your old life is still plodding along at roughly the same pace. Familiar faces, voices. A million books at your fingertips to escape into. The comfort and safety in knowing you can get a grasp on where you’re going next, ideas on what you should do, how to get the best deal as a consumer, and the comforting voice of a thousand reviewers who’ve been there before you.

Sometimes these things come from real voices and people you meet, sometimes they come from online. Either way, I can’t help but think that more information has to mean a better deal for the modern-day traveller; a chance to maximise your adventures. And as long as you don’t use a screen as an excuse to build a barrier between you and the outside world, I can’t see how it can be a bad thing.

Essential backpacking apps and accessories for a year backpacking

Okay, I admit it. More time went into planning what apps and technology to take than what clothes or even what route to take backpacking.

Geeky I know. But in case that’s your thing… Here’s everything I researched and can recommend to the best of my knowledge right now.

#1 – My Smartphone

A smartphone is now your best friend when you backpack around the world. We left our laptops at home saving on the extra baggage.

Before we left, I purchased the biggest micro SD card my phone could take (32gb) so I had enough space for favourite music, downloading podcasts and essential travel apps (see #4 below)

To avoid any phone charges I stopped my phone contract and switched to pay as you go and asked to have data turned off.

I kept my phone number so i can receive texts from my bank (Santander) when they send me a weekly account balance and text whenever a transaction of 100 pounds or more happens.

Sadly Virgin doesn’t allow me to do this but you can… Before you go forward all missed calls to Hullomail Voicemail so you can listen and download over WiFi to save voicemail charges.

#2 – KiwiBird 3 in 1 SD card reader

This little multi-purpose gadget is amazing. We use it for two main things: entertainment and photo backups.

Before we left we loaded favourite TV episodes and films onto a few SD Cards which we could watch on my phone using card reader. Essential for long 20 hour plus bus journeys and for when we get fed up staring at each other’s faces.

Photo Backups

We back up our photos weekly as WiFi is virtually everywhere. The camera SD Card can be connected to my smartphone by the  KiwiBird 3 in 1 SD card reader and the photos can be copied across (ES File Explorer) to my phone.

Then in the background the files are uploaded to Google Drive. Thanks Free WiFi at all the hostels we’ve stayed at.

Finally, I log into my PC at home using TeamViewer and drag the photos onto my hard drive. This saves paying for excess storage space from Google.

#3 – Anker External Battery 13000mAh

Already this bad boy has proved its worth. My phone is about 3000mAh so this gives me four times the juice. Essential for us when we’re on 5 day hikes,  long 20 hour plus bus journeys and backpacking in remote areas. Has two USB charging slots so both Chloe’s iPhone and my phone and/or camera can be charged at the same time.

#4 – Backpacking Essential Apps tells you how to get to your next destination. The website even lets you click through to the bus website to see timetables and even book your tickets online.

Maps.Me lets you download complete maps of the country and see where you’re going in real time (because GPS works without internet).

Google Translate lets you download the language offline to get translations in real time. Now it includes speaking too. Extra tip: new vocabulary and phrases you can copy across to AnkiDroid to help you learn the new words. I recommend learning tapes… Either Michel Thomas or Pimsleur.

SurfEasy is a secure VPN. Not a lot of people know that information over WiFi can be seen quite easily by others on the same network. So especially when logging into your bank or doing anything else you don’t want others to see,  connect via SurfEasy first. You can even change location too.

Lonely Planet Guidebooks via Scribd saves you from carrying around all the books. You have the guidebook for each country, which has more detail than the on the shoestring books. On top of that you can also access thousands of ebooks and audiobooks too – necessary to stay sane for long bus journeys. Wikitravel is also great for the honest traveller opinion

TeamViewer lets you log in and control your home desktop computer while away over WiFi (secure it first with SurfEasy). Just install it before you go and leave it on standby. Then via WiFi you can remotely log into it wherever you are.

Spotify and Podcasts also prove indispensable for entertainment, as well as uTorrent for downloading films on the go.

#5 –  Anker Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard

This is only really needed if you intend to do a lot of typing while away and prefer a real keyboard to your phone’s keyboard.